The Ruth Pelke Story: How Her Grandson Forgave Her Killer

Ruth Pelke
Ruth Pelke | Source

It was a bright spring day in 1985. Paula Cooper and three of her friends were on their lunch break at Lew Wallace High School in Gary Indiana. Feeling bored, the teenage girls thought they needed something to do. So they decided to go out and burglarize somebody’s house.

The group first got high on marijuana and wine. Then, armed with a knife, they went to the home of 78-year-old Bible teacher, Ruth Pelke. They told Mrs. Pelke they were interested in her Bible lessons, and she invited them in. Once inside they immediately attacked the elderly woman, hitting her on the head with a vase and knocking her to the floor. They demanded that she give them money.

In the words of Prosecutor Jack Crawford, when Ruth Pelke said that she didn’t have any money, Paula Cooper “started torturing her, slicing her with the butcher knife across her chest.”

According to court records, Cooper personally stabbed Mrs. Pelke in the chest and stomach 33 times, killing her. One thrust was so powerful that it went clear through the victim’s chest, leaving a mark on the floor beneath her. As she lay on that floor dying, Ruth Pelke was saying the Lord’s prayer.

Far from being horrified at the savage crime they had just committed, the four teenagers couldn’t resist bragging about what they had done. That contributed to their being arrested just a day later.

Paula Cooper
Paula Cooper | Source

A young but vicious killer is sent to death row

At the time of this robbery and murder, which yielded the attackers a grand total of $10, Paula Cooper was just 15 years of age. In 1986 she was tried, convicted, and at the age of 16, sentenced to death in Indiana’s electric chair. She became the youngest person on death row in the country.

Despite the viciousness of her crime, Paula Cooper’s youth caused many people around the world to advocate that her death sentence be rescinded. In Europe more than 2 million people signed a petition asking that she not be executed. One of those who got personally involved was Pope John Paul II, who sent a papal emissary to Indiana, and personally appealed to Governor Robert Orr to spare Cooper’s life.

Another advocate for leniency was, surprisingly, the grandson of the woman Cooper so horrifically murdered.

Love and compassion for a killer?

Bill Pelke had a very hard time with the way his grandmother died. “For a year and a half,” he says, “whenever I thought about my grandmother, I always pictured how she died. It was terrible.” He initially felt that the death penalty was entirely appropriate for the crime Cooper had committed.

But then his thoughts began to turn to how his Bible-teaching grandmother had lived, and what she stood for. It started when he saw Paula Cooper’s grandfather at the trial.

“My grandmother would not have wanted this old man to witness his teenage granddaughter die,” Pelke says.

Over time Bill Pelke became more and more convinced that his grandmother would have had an attitude of love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family. Said Pelke,

My Grandmother would have been appalled that this girl was on death row. I was convinced that my grandmother would have had love and compassion for this girl and this girl’s family and convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that my grandmother wanted me to have that same love and compassion. I did not have any. But I was so convinced that’s what she would have wanted that in a short prayer I begged God to please, please, please give me love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family.

Bill Pelke advocating against Paula Cooper's execution
Bill Pelke advocating against Paula Cooper's execution | Source

That prayer was answered. Within three months of the time Cooper was sentenced to death, Bill Pelke was able to forgive Paula Cooper for what she had done to his grandmother. He became one of the strongest and most visible advocates for removing Cooper from death row. And his advocacy was effective.

A killer is set free

In 1989 a series of rulings in both state and federal courts led to the Indiana Supreme Court commuting Cooper’s sentence to 60 years in prison. She earned credits toward early release, and in June of 2013, at the age of 43, she was set free on parole after having served 27 years.

VIDEO: Paula Cooper - A second chance at life

During her incarceration, Bill Pelke visited Cooper in prison, and the two eventually began exchanging weekly emails. He never asked her to explain why she had committed the horrific murder because, as he said, “there’s not a good answer for that.” Still, Pelke became convinced that Cooper was truly remorseful for what she had done.

“She would take it back in a heartbeat if she could, but she knows she has to live with it for the rest of her life,” he said. “She knows she took something valuable out of society. She wants to try to give back. She wants to help work with other young people to avoid the pitfalls that she fell into. She wants to try to give back to society.”

Paula Cooper turns her life around

During the almost three decades she was incarcerated, Paula Cooper does seem to have changed from the angry and bitter teenager who could viciously kill without remorse, to a more stable and mature adult. At the beginning of her term in prison she had a difficult time, including being sentenced in 1995 to three years in solitary confinement for assaulting a prison guard. But she finally decided “it was time to really sit down and buckle down and get it.”

While serving her term, she earned a GED, a vocational degree and, in 2001, a bachelor’s degree. She tutored other prisoners in culinary arts, and became known as a leader among the inmates.

People have expressed strong feelings about the release of Paula Cooper. With whom do you most agree?

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Paula Cooper in prison
Paula Cooper in prison | Source

“Seven, eight years ago, I couldn’t say I was ready to go home, and I wouldn’t tell anybody that because that was a lie,” Cooper said before her release. “My time is coming and, you know, I just hope that people give me a chance out there. That’s it – because people do change.”

And one of the people Cooper credits most for the change in her life is Bill Pelke, who visited her in prison a total of 15 times.

“He’s my biggest encouragement,” she said before her release.

Bill Pelke
Bill Pelke | Source
Journey of Hope...
Journey of Hope...

Bill Pelke tells the story of his grandmother's murder, and how his own life was transformed by the power of forgiveness.

 

Ruth Pelke’s death changed her grandson’s life

To some, Bill Pelke’s attitude toward the woman who attacked and killed his grandmother with unimaginable savagery might seem extremely odd. He not only forgave her for the crime, but committed himself to doing all he could to help her put her life back together. Even members of his own family had difficulty understanding Pelke’s attitude, and for a time there was strain within the family because of it.

What could possibly explain such kindness by a member of the victim’s family toward the person who murdered her with such callous viciousness?

I think I know the answer.

The Bible teacher still teaches

It’s that Bible Bill Pelke’s grandmother used to teach. In it Jesus commands, “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). As Pelke began to think about his grandmother’s way of life, he became convinced she would have displayed the attitude Jesus calls for in His followers, even toward her own killer. And that conviction changed Bill Pelke’s attitude and his life.

“It’s been a long journey, that’s for sure,” says Pelke, who has become an anti-death penalty activist, “but what I learned about love and compassion and forgiveness in 1986 has just kept me going.”

As her grandson’s change of heart demonstrates, Ruth Pelke’s life may have ended in 1985, but her Bible-teaching ministry continues.

UPDATE:

On May 26, 2015 Paula Cooper was found dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot to the head. Her parole was to have ended in June, but after spending most of her life in prison, she apparently was not prepared to live on her own.

© 2014 Ronald E. Franklin

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36 comments

RachaelOhalloran profile image

RachaelOhalloran 2 years ago from United States

Hi Ron,

This was a well written article about compassion and forgiveness. I do not know that I would have had such a forgiving heart, given the brutality of the crime. I know I'd be forever envisioning the manner of death. Nowhere did I read in your words that she blamed drugs or gave a reason for her actions, although I admit that I did not read the linked websites you included to see if it was revealed there.

I am not a death penalty advocate, I have made that clear in most of my articles about it. However, I am an advocate that LIFE should mean LIFE - as in all of your natural life, with no chance of parole or eligibility for parole.

Even though her life sentence was commuted from death penalty phase, this is another case of a life sentence not equaling a life sentence and being released after serving a certain length of time.

I usually am forgiving of most things, but I know I wouldn't be able to forgive in this case no matter how much time had passed or how reformed the prisoner became because in the end, she still committed a vicious and horrendous crime against a woman who did nothing to her (or her friends).

And I know, that is my burden, but that is also my nature because of my experiences. I have had a crime committed against me not once, but twice by the same person and if the person had not been released from prison on "good behavior" merits, then the second crime against me would never have happened. It is from this place that I speak when I say Life should mean Life - all of the person's natural life.

I think anyone would give reform a try if they knew there was a chance they'd be no longer on death row. Whether she is truly reformed or not will remain to be seen as I'm sure, in her freedom, she will be under scrutiny until the day she dies.


NateB11 profile image

NateB11 2 years ago from California, United States of America

Amazing story and Bill is an incredible guy. He overcame grief and anger and did the right thing. Considering the circumstances, he's a giant.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Rachael, with the experiences you've had, I certainly understand your trepidation when it comes to releasing felons early. And that's the problem, isn't it - you can never be sure that an inmate's claimed change of heart and life is real. If they re-offend, someone gets hurt who otherwise wouldn't have been. As for Paula Cooper, it was stated that she was an abused child. She says she herself doesn't understand why she did what she did. I don't think those things were considered mitigating factors at all. The big issue was her age. Should an act committed at 15 preclude that person ever having a 2nd chance? I don't think you can have a hard and fast rule about that. Each case must be considered on its own merits. But it's a very tough call! Thanks so much for reading and sharing.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, Nate. For me, this story is much more about Bill than it is about Paula Cooper. Under the circumstances, forgiving her and being willing to help her couldn't have been easy. I believe that forgiveness (which is an entirely separate issue from what type of punishment should be imposed) is a necessity for our own mental, spiritual, and emotional health.


junecampbell profile image

junecampbell 2 years ago from North Vancouver, BC, Canada

Bill is an amazing man, an example to us all. I am strongly opposed to the death penalty so I am pleased that Paula was spared. I hope her rehabilitation is genuine.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Hi, June. I'm sure Paula has a ton of people pulling for her to make good on the 2nd chance at life she's been given. Whatever happens with her, I think Bill's attitude is a great example for all of us. Thanks for reading and commenting.


S Leretseh profile image

S Leretseh 2 years ago

Vicious. She deserves at the very least life in prison.

I wonder ... if the victim was an elderly black and the perp was a 15-year-old no good tramp white female and the white female got the same sentence...if blacks would have rallied - so fervently! so energetically! - for commutation of the white female's sentence? ... and the elderly woman's grandson would have forgiven her? Ya think?

It's just that in my very extensive research on black-on-white AND white-on--black crime...I've never heard of one such incident where blacks rally for a white perp who committed a heinous crime against a black person, believing the white person received too harsh a sentence.

So many countless times white people have organized for a black perp and the victim was white... to get a sentence commutation. And , yes, I know how few violent crimes white people commit against blacks. Nevertheless, in over 114 years...Not ONE?


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

S Leretseh, I'm not aware that blacks "rallied" for Paula Cooper any more than whites did. As you may have noticed, Bill Pelke, Pope John Paul II, and the vast majority of the 2 million Europeans who signed petitions to not have Cooper executed were white. I'm not aware of any racial dimension to this crime - no one involved in the case that I know of, at the time or since, has said there was any racial element in it. Thanks for sharing your point of view.


MsDora profile image

MsDora 2 years ago from The Caribbean

Beautiful story and well told. Bill Pelke is exceptional because of his grandmother's exemplary life of love and forgiveness. Her legacy continues, but who knew the story would be so interesting? "Love never fails." I pray that Paula Cooper's life going forward proves that.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks so much, MsDora. I think you said a very important word - we really need to be praying for Paula Cooper. And for me, both Ruth and Bill Pelke provide important role models we all need to pay attention to.


Sharkye11 profile image

Sharkye11 2 years ago from Oklahoma

Very moving hub. I applaud the man for his strength of character. I would think it would be very difficult to meet the person responsible for the first time, and not give in to anger and emotion.

I hope his faith in her and his hard work stand the test of time. I don't believe that everyone deserves a second chance, but that many do. And there is no way to tell the difference. Great hub to remind all of us that there are still some incredible people on this planet.


PegCole17 profile image

PegCole17 2 years ago from Dallas, Texas

Your presentation of this story was compelling and well told. I watched the video hoping to hear Paula speak about her situation and offer some comments about remorse. Although she has come a long way in her rehabilitation, it seemed like she wanted to blame and seek accountability from the other girls who were involved in the crime. Mob mentality and peer pressure are strong elements, but no excuse.

I will continue to hope and pray that Paula Cooper has found the true meaning of life and that she will prove that second chances are a good thing. I have nothing but admiration for Bill and his vast amount of forgiveness.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, Sharkye11. I think your observation that we can't tell in advance which offenders deserve a second chance is very accurate. That's where faith comes in. We have to be prepared for the fact that many times that faith will be vindicated, but there will be times when it is violated. That can be tragic for the new victims of those who re-offend. But I think taking the chance, after exercising strenuous due diligence to vet potential parolees, is better than denying all mercy.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Peg, I think you're right that Paula seemed to resent being the face of the crime, and the only one of the four sentenced to death. Yet it's clear she was the ringleader and the one who inflicted most of the damage on Mrs. Pelke. How she will respond to the 2nd chance she's been given is still an open question. For me the real story is the transformation in Bill Pelke's life as he confronted the choice between hatred and forgiveness. Thanks so much for reading and sharing.


S Leretseh profile image

S Leretseh 2 years ago

@peg

Taking the person out on an all-expense paid shopping spree who butchered your grandmother...doesn't fall in the realm of "forgiveness." It's down right weird! The 15-year-old black female (who never butchered an elderly black female) IMO because of her age should have been given a life term - not death row.

I've spent a good deal of time on black-white relations over the past 10 years or so. Blacks to me are not so hard to figure out. It's white people's behavior toward blacks, particularly over the last 60 or so years, that has me still so baffled.

This is hardly the first time a white person has went into bizarre-o world on a black-on white crime.

1) Remember Amy Biehl? She was butchered by black youths in S. Africa. Her father called her murderers "heroes" and "revolutionaries" , demanded their release from prison, THEN went out to S. Africa to greet them - in front of TV cameras - and announce he wanted to go into business with the unemployed, uneducated black youths who had butchered his daughter.

2) Bob Dylan wrote and sang a song for a black male who participated in racist massacre of white people ("Hurricane" Carter - twice convicted). Dylan demanded the black male's release from prison and believed his conviction was a racist plot against innocent Hurricane Carter - because Carter was black.

3) Eldridge Cleaver...Remember him? Proud member of the Black Panthers. Before he became a member of the Black Panthers he was sitting in a CA prison cell convicted of rape and attempted murder of a white female (he later boasted in a book about being a serial rapist of white females). Once he received media attention...a white female raced to his cell and pleaded with him to marry her (No, I'm not kidding).

I can go on and on here...

BTW, I have no problem with forgiveness. But so many white people, for inexplicable reasons, are going into bizarre-o mode when - AND ONLY WHEN - the perp is black and the vicitm(s) is/are white.

MY THOUGHT -- Regarding white people who leap to the defense of a black person who committed a heinous crime against a white person (never seen this behavior cross racial lines except white toward black))...It's NOT forgiveness on the part of white people which drives them to do it...more than it is behavior more in line with what adults show to helpless children. That is, white people have been taught, aided by visual images from TV , to believe blacks should be viewed as their children. Nevertheless, this bizarre-o behavior on the part of white people needs to be examined and explained.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

S Leretseh - I'll let your comments on this issue speak for themselves.


travel_man1971 profile image

travel_man1971 2 years ago from Bicol, Philippines

I have teary-eyes after reading this hub. Yes, loving an enemy is hard to do upfront. A person under drug influence can never think rationally just like Paula Cooper did to a servant of God.But people do change. As we grow older, we will know better the TRUTH of our existence and cling to our Creator for our salvation.


PegCole17 profile image

PegCole17 2 years ago from Dallas, Texas

Hi Ron, I was surprised by the reaction of S Leretseh, but your comment was exactly the response to give. Thank you.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Hi, travel_man1971. I think Bill Pelke's determination to forgive in the face of such a heinous crime against his family challenges all of us to realize how much forgiveness we have received from God. Thanks for reading and commenting.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thank you, Peg. I appreciate that.


techygran profile image

techygran 2 years ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

Hi Ron, you did a beautiful job of presenting this hub and of monitoring the comments, with dignity and respect. I am always moved to hear about the forgiveness that Mr. Pelke showed, so "counter-intuitive," as this generation would have it, but so how Jesus would have it. There is always a reminder in these testimonies of how far I fall from the mark with all my little cherished gripes and righteousnesses. Thanks Ron.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks so much, Cynthia. As I have said, for me this story is really about Bill Pelke and the power of forgiveness.


annart profile image

annart 23 months ago from SW England

Beautifully written and a fascinating story. I am against the death penalty but I must admit that when you see such things as 132 children being murdered by the Taliban, then you do wonder. It does no good, though, to respond with violence which only puts one on the same level as the miscreants.

A great message of love and forgiveness.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 23 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, annart. For me, the power of forgiveness is what this story is all about.


Bill Pelke 21 months ago

Thank you Ron. Usually it is referred to as "The Paula Cooper Case"

I appreciate you calling it "the Ruth Pelke Story"

The story continues http://www.worldcoalition.org/uganda-journey-hope-...


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 21 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thank you, Bill. I think how your grandmother lived her life, and how you responded to her death, make this a truly inspirational story. And as you say, that story continues.


Bill Pelke 21 months ago

I appreciate all the people who said they would pray for Paula. Pray that she will do good. Pray that she will follow the path the Lord has set for her. I can not talk to Paula until she is off parole this June, but I can and do pray for her. Thanks again for those who do pray for her.


bzirkone profile image

bzirkone 18 months ago from Kansas

Ron I found your story while 'exploring' hubs and didn't expect to like it or even finish reading it but I did--both. It's a fascinating tragedy and you told it well. Huge thumbs up and def. will read more of your work.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 18 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks much, bzirkone. I really appreciate that.


Brynn Thorssen profile image

Brynn Thorssen 18 months ago from Colorado Springs, CO

Her suicide begs the question: Is clemency for people convicted so young, with no life experience out in the real world, really a gift or is it a worse punishment than them staying in prison for life. In this instance, death may have been merciful.

My ex-husband talked about how happy he would be once he got out of the military. I knew he would struggle with the freedom. And that was just the military, not prison.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 16 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Brynn, I think the answer my be in providing more (and more personal) support when someone who has spent much of their life in prison is finally released. For too many, if they are left to sink or swim, they will sink.


Kiss andTales profile image

Kiss andTales 14 months ago

I was just looking through your hubs , and notice this familiar story, I was born and raised in Gary Indiana , My kids attended this school as well, and do remember when it happened so sad of this story , and I did not know her sad outcome, but what we all must remember God judges all and he will have the last words on all victims , and all people who repent from the heart only he would know the truth.

It was such a eerie and unbelievable thing to hear about, but there are still worse stories ,

That is why God will bring his solutions to all our problems very soon.

You have some very good hubs to read thank you.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 14 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, Kiss andTales. I'm sure this story must bring back very sad memories. As you say, the bottom line is that God will bring righteous judgment and, as Scripture says, vengeance is His alone.


Kiss andTales profile image

Kiss andTales 14 months ago

This is true, thank you for your good subjects and replies


savvydating profile image

savvydating 9 months ago

A powerful story. I could not have done what Bill Pelke did. Mr. Pelke is a testament to the power of God to overcome anything. What a great and humble man. May God bless him abundantly and give him strength and comfort always.

Thank you for sharing this story of two humble saints.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 9 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thank you, savvydating. I think what Bill did should be inspiration for us all. Blessing those who curse you and spitefully use you isn't easy, but it's what we are called to do.

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